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Colombia becomes new hub for human smuggling into US

Long a starting point for cocaine smuggling, Colombia has now become a major hub for human smuggling from Africa and Asia to the US via Mexico.

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Abdullahi (c.) and other Somali nationals lounge on donated mattresses in a sports stadium in Sincelejo, Colombia. The travelers were shipwrecked while trying to reach the US illegally.

Sibylla Brodzinsky for the Monitor

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The boat was cramped and uncomfortable, with nowhere for its 71 passengers to sit during the three-day ride. But Abdullahi was excited. He was halfway to America from his native Somalia, which he had left more than a month before.

Pressed together with six other Somalis and 63 Eritreans, they had set off in the dark of night from the Colombian coastal city of Cartagena, headed for somewhere in Central America. But shortly after they set sail, the vessel's steering mechanism snapped, the engine failed, and the boat began to take on water.

For an entire day and night, they were adrift at sea. Many of the passengers fell ill from the rocking of the waves. All feared for their lives.

"Pray to your God," the captain told them. And they did.

The boat finally ran aground on the tiny island of El Latal. The passengers scrambled ashore and the captain fled. Soon the Colombian Navy arrived, ushering the East African immigrants to the mainland and housing them in a small basketball stadium in this steamy city near the coast. Once here, they requested refugee status.

The aborted voyage put a temporary hold on the Somalis' and Eritreans' plans to get to the United States, but Abdullahi says it hasn't dashed his dream. He fled Somalia after his eldest brother was shot dead by the radical Islamist group Al Shabab because he worked as a doctor for a Western aid group. In the US, he says, "I can be safe."

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